Mark Coleman

First Sunday


Riding the
Hawaiian airwaves

A former governor of Hawaii used to describe himself as "quiet but effective." The same can be said of Mike Kelly, general manager of Cox Radio Inc.'s radio stations KCCN and KINE.

Since 1985, Kelly has been a quiet but effective force behind the rise of Hawaiian music on the airwaves in Hawaii, with KCCN and KINE consistently in the top five of local radio stations.

In 1985, when Kelly started with KCCN, there was just one Hawaiian music station: KCCN, at 1420 AM. Now there are four such stations on Oahu alone and others on the neighbor islands. Much of the credit for this must go to Kelly, who has maintained a steady course for KCCN through several ownership changes and major changes in broadcasting's regulatory environment.

Mike Kelly joined radio station KCCN in 1985 as a salesman and is now its general manager. The carving behind him is in the lobby.

In 1996, for example, rules were relaxed to allow the ownership of as many as seven stations in a particular market. So now, besides KCCN FM and KINE FM, Cox Radio owns KRTR 96 FM and KXME 104.3 FM (both managed by Austin Vali) and has a joint sales agreement with KGMZ 107.9 FM. The company, with 120 employees in Hawaii and occupying the entire seventh floor of the Pioneer Plaza in Honolulu, recently sold the original KCCN, at 1420 AM; it now is a sports-talk station called KKEA, though it continues to offer some Hawaiian programming.

Kelly also has been manager since the 1970s of the legendary Hawaiian-music band Olomana, which these days consists of Jerry Santos, Wally Suenaga, Willy Paikuli and Haunani Apoliona. He also is a board member of the Hawaii Academy of Recording Artists, which essentially is the Grammy organization for Hawaiian music.

Kelly was born and raised in Sacramento, Calif. He moved here in 1968 to open Records Hawaii, which was a precursor in Hawaii to Tower Records and other such large music stores.

"When I started here in '85, the station used to get 'sympathy buys.' Today Hawaiian music is a force in the music industry." --Mike Kelly, General manager, KCCN FM and KINE FM

Local boy, sort of

Mark Coleman: You moved to Hawaii in 1968?

Mike Kelly: Yes.

MC: I had this idea you might be a local boy because of your heavy involvement with KCCN and Olomana and such.

MK: Yeah, I'm actually proud of that because a lot of people think I am local, but I'm not. I mean, my two kids were born and raised here, and this is my home, but I was born and raised in Sacramento. I came here with three other guys to open up Records Hawaii. We opened it on Nov. 8, 1968.

MC: At 404 Piikoi St.? Wasn't that the original location?

MK: No, 1257 Kapiolani Blvd. -- which is now a vacant lot -- right across from the Blackfield Hawaii Building.

MC: What made you think you could move here and open a record store?

MK: (Laughs) Well, John Leonard, Carl Schumacher and Greg Carter worked at Tower Records in Sacramento. When I was a senior in high school, a friend who worked with those guys got me a job there as a clerk. After high school I got drafted and went to Vietnam. When I came back, I resumed working at Tower. Those guys were still there, and they said, "Hey, we're going to go to Hawaii to open up a store like this one."

MC: How did you guys divide the responsibilities?

MK: John was kind of the businessman, the "big picture" guy, involved in promotions. Carl was the record guy, the buyer. Greg and I were the people on the floor. We assisted in buying and we dealt with the public.

MC: That was a huge store.

MK: It was the first free-standing record store in Hawaii.

MC: Were you still involved with it when it moved to 404 Piikoi?

MK: Yeah, I became the manager at that point.

MC: How long were you with Records Hawaii before you started doing other things?

MK: I was there for 10 or 12 years.

Life with Olomana

MC: How did you get started with Olomana?

MK: At 404 Piikoi, there was a time when, like all businesses, it was slow and we needed business to increase. So Paul Mattox, who was the original owner of Sunbums (a local biweekly entertainment tabloid), he was like an independent promoter, and he and I got together, and we put together a promotion called "Cheap Thrills."

MC: I see a Janis Joplin album down there on your floor. (Janis Joplin's major-label debut, with Big Brother & the Holding Co., in 1968, was called "Cheap Thrills.")

MK: Yeah. I walked around the store forever trying to think of a name for this promotion. So we treated it like a concert. We did a poster, and we put 40,000 singles, 45s, in the store window, and we put a motorcycle on top of it, and if you guessed how many 45s were in the window, you'd win the motorcycle. We had live music in the store, and we had balloons and T-shirts made up and we treated it like an event, like a concert, for three or four days.

For music, we had Ox, which later became Seawind, and I was looking for other entertainment, so I called up promoter Ken Rosene. He said, "You gotta hear this group playing down at Chuck's Steakhouse on Kuhio Avenue." So I went down there. Now, I had seen Jerry (Santos) play before, but I hadn't seen Jerry play with Robert Beaumont. Afterward, I called them up and they came and played. So that's how I met Olomana.

MC: What happened next?

MK: I started hanging out at Chuck's, and we became friends. I had a background in retail, and they hadn't recorded yet. Coincidentally, there was a fellow who worked for us, Jim Linkner, who now is a well-known record producer.

MC: He worked for Records Hawaii?

MK: Yes. In fact I bought him his first tape recorder. So Jim worked for us as a clerk in the record store, and then he would go around at night and on weekends and record bands everywhere. That's how Jim got his start in music. But anyway, around that time, Jim met Olomana and he did a demo tape for them, which I took to Panini Records, the guys who recorded Gabby Pahinui. They advised Jerry and me and Robert to start our own label.

MC: Why would they say that?

MK: Well, that's the kind of people they were: Witt Shingle, Lawrence Brown, Steve Seigfried and Peter Moon. They just thought that with our backgrounds, we could do our own label. And once we made the album, they distributed it for us.

MC: What was your label?

MK: Seabird Sound. It still exists today.

MC: What was the Hawaiian station that would have played the Olomana album back then?

MK: 1420 AM KCCN played it.

Life at KCCN

MC: How did the KCCN thing develop for you?

MK: After I left Records Hawaii, I went to DJ's Sound City. DJ's was a mall record store, and they hired me away from Records Hawaii. At the same time, I also started working more with Olomana and eventually became their manager. We released their first album in '76. After I left DJ's, I became like a booking agent, and I just booked bands and did promotions.

MC: Who else did you book?

MK: Remember Banyan Gardens, downtown? I booked all the entertainment there: Moe Keale; Brickwood Galuteria, who works at KCCN now; Tony Conjugacion. I did that for a couple of years. I also kept booking Olomana and managing them, and when I would book them someplace, I would try to persuade whoever owned the business to advertise on 1420 because the station played Hawaiian music. So I kept inadvertently selling 1420. Then one day I was here (in the Pioneer Plaza building), when the station was on the fourth floor, and Ronnie Hope, who was the general manager at the time, said, "You know, you keep selling this station. I wish you could come to work for us, but I know we couldn't afford you." Little did she know that I desperately needed money, and we negotiated something and I went to work. They hired me in sales. That was in 1985.

MC: So you just worked your way into the business side of the company as it went along?

MK: Yeah, I went from being a sales person to assistant sales manager, then sales manager, station manager, general manager.

MC: To what extent has your involvement with the band influenced your decisions -- you know, like, "I gotta get Olomana onto the playlist." That would seem to be a conflict.

MK: Yeah, that would be unethical. I have never chosen the music. We have program directors who do that. And as the years have gone by, in Cox Radio, everything is much more scientific than it used to be, where the music is tested and goes through focus groups and things like that. But I've never chosen the music and never would because of my involvement with Olomana.

Hawaiian kine radio

MC: What do you think is the future of Hawaiian music on the radio?

MK: Hawaiian music keeps getting more and more popular on the radio. There are now four Hawaiian music stations on Oahu alone. When I started here in '85, the AM station (1420) used to get "sympathy buys." They'd throw us a bone. They would say, "Oh yeah, that little Hawaiian station, 1420?" It was a mercy buy. And today Hawaiian music is a force in the music industry. That's happened in 15 years.

MC: What about Mountain Apple Records and Bruddah Iz? What do you think that's doing for the business right now?

MK: All of the industry has changed. It's really amazing, the changes it's gone through. But anyway, before Israel died, he was one of the very few artists that appealed to young and old, and appealed to traditionalists and people who like contemporary. So you could have Israel at KCCN's annual Birthday Bash, and then you could have Israel at a traditional Hawaiian show. Israel could play everywhere, kind of like Gabby Pahinui. The only other person I can think of who was like that was Gabby, although Gabby never got to the same level of popularity.

Radio business outlook

MC: What do you think about the economy here?

MK: Well, 2000 was a great year in broadcasting. 2001 prior to Sept. 11 was a really slow year. After Sept. 11 it was really bad. In 2002 it's come back. The political campaigning has helped that. For 2003 everybody's projecting it's going to be about the same as 2002. The volatile part is, you know, if we go to war. There are so many different things out there now: Iraq, and snipers, and our economy is so heavily dependent on tourism and service industries.

Personal outlook

MC: What do you think you'll be doing 10 years from now?

MK: I'm really lucky. Thirty-four years I've been in Hawaii, and I've done what I really enjoy doing. I have a great wife and family, and I've made a living at things that are fun for me and enjoyable. There are aspects of this job (at KCCN/KINE) that are stressful, but it's a great business because I love Hawaiian music and I love the music industry, so I continue to want to make this place succeed. Also, this business is made up of people, and it's been great to work with the younger people coming up, such as David Daniels, KCCN program director, and then the people like Sam Kapu, Frank Shaner and Brickwood who have been here a long time. I'm really proud of the history of this place. The people who have worked here are phenomenal.

KCCN disc jockey "Lina Girl" playfully ducks behind Mike Kelly to avoid having her photograph taken.

Traditional, contemporary, 'Jawaiian'

Mark Coleman: As KCCN general manager, can you say, Hey, man, this ain't selling. We need more contemporary or more traditional or more "Jawaiian" music or whatever?

Mike Kelly: I have some involvement in the big picture programming decisions, but (sighs) that's been a controversy for as long as I can remember: what's contemporary Hawaiian and what's traditional. I mean, the Brothers Cazimero in the '70s were considered contemporary Hawaiian. Today they're playing the same type of music and they're considered traditional. Same with Olomana. When they came out in '75, they were considered very contemporary, and some of the kupuna didn't care for it because it had sort of a modern sound. Today that music is thought of as being traditional.

MC: Back when those bands were considered contemporary, how was traditional defined?

MK: Well, a lot of Hawaiian language, and then there was the upright bass, a ukulele and guitar.

MC: And a lot of -- not yodeling, what is the term?

MK: Falsetto. And then there was the hapa-haole era: ukulele, bass and guitar, sung in English, and they did that in Waikiki for tourists because they figured tourists wanted to hear English. So the hapa-haole era was a strange and interesting time in history.

MC: For a while back in the '80s and '90s, the contemporary bands would also play reggae -- real reggae, by Bob Marley and such. Then you started having bands that were playing Hawaiian-referenced reggae music, and it became "Jawaiian." That got a lot of criticism because there are no Jamaican roots around here anywhere.

MK: There was a seminar in 1990 at Windward Community College that discussed the controversy about what was Hawaiian and what was Jawaiian. There's no "J" in the Hawaiian language, for one thing. But, you know, when Jerry (Olomana) first started playing, he was listening to Joni Mitchell and Richie Havens, and that's the type of music he was playing. But he became more aware of his culture and his roots and started playing more Hawaiian music. That's how Olomana was one of the first groups to play English and Hawaiian. Similarly, Jawaiian music today is a little bit different than when it first started. I don't think the groups are trying to emulate a culture. What they're doing is playing dance music, and that's really what it is. You still have a reggae-sounding music, but the reason you have a reggae-sounding music, by Kapena, Fiji and Sean Na'auao and all these groups, is because that's what kids want. In every generation, kids wanna dance.

Mark Coleman's conversations with people who have had an impact on our community appear on the first Sunday of every month. If you have a comment or suggestion, please send it to

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